10 Defining Moments in Croatia's 2014 World Cup Campaign

Sasa Ibrulj@sasaibruljCorrespondent IJuly 9, 2014

10 Defining Moments in Croatia's 2014 World Cup Campaign

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    Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

    Croatia ended their World cup in tears. Once again the team that was destined to be a dark horse of the tournament to follow in the steps of the 1998 team, disappointed and went home after the group stage.

    The Croats made life tough for Brazil in the World Cup opener, which looked promising, as well as their performance against Cameroon. But their third and decisive match against Mexico highlighted the limitations of the squad.

    Here are 10 defining moments in Croatia's 2014 World Cup campaign.

Marcelo's Own Goal

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    Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

    It couldn't have started any better for Croatia.

    The eyes of the whole world were on the opening match of the World Cup, where Croatia were supposed to be playing a support role in Brazil's triumph.

    However, Ivica Olic's cross was touched on by Nikica Jelavic to confuse Marcelo, who put the ball in his own net.

    Few had expected Croatia to control the opening period against the hosts, and their pre-tournament status as a dark horse seemed to be confirmed.

Neymar Challenge on Luka Modric

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    Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

    Brazil were chasing the equaliser in the 27th minute when Luka Modric hit the floor after an aerial challenge with Neymar.

    The referee instantly awarded Neymar with a yellow card, but television replays showed that Brazilian star had elbowed Modric. 

    After the match, the Croats were furious with the referee because of a controversial penalty award and their disallowed goal, as Japan Today reported.

    But should Neymar have been sent off for his challenge on Modric?

Controversial Penalty for Brazil

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    Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

    Brazil were becoming more and more nervous in the opening World Cup match with 20 minutes remaining.

    Their search for a winning goal was looking fruitless, but the game was turned on its head when referee Yuichi Nishimura whistled for a penalty after Fred was brought down in the box. 

    The forward was held off by Dejan Lovren before going down, but his fall to the floor convinced the match official, and Neymar hit home from the spot.

Leaving Eduardo on the Bench vs. Brazil

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    Darko Bandic/Associated Press

    The referee and his controversial decisions helped Brazilians to steer to the first win in this World Cup, but Croatia head coach Niko Kovac made some strange moves.

    The absence of Mario Mandzukic, who was suspended for the Brazil match because of sending off in the play-offs, forced him to find another solution up front.

    Many expected former Arsenal star Eduardo da Silva to take that role, but Kovac opted for the much slower and less mobile Nikica Jelavic.

    For most of the match, Croatia looked toothless up font, but Kovac kept Eduardo off the pitch, giving the chance to young Ante Rebic instead.

    Things may have ended differently for the Croats if they had used an attacker who could put pressure on the opposition’s back four.

Olic’s goal vs. Cameroon

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    Fernando Llano/Associated Press

    The Croats were under pressure before this match. Expectations were high after their performance against Brazil and many saw Cameroon as a routine victory.

    But the truth was that Croatia were struggling very early on, showing some serious flaws, especially on the left side.

    One thing that could have steered the game towards Croatia was an early goal, which is why Olic’s 11th-minute strike was one of the most positive moments for Croatia at this World Cup.

    After that goal, Croatia gained self-confidence and turned the match into a comfortable 4-0 win.

Alex Song's Red Card

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    Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

    The scoreboard at the end of this match suggests that this was an easy match for Croatia.

    But despite Olic's early goal, Cameroon kept fighting until the half-time. However, just five minutes before the interval, Alex Song helped the Croats with a foolish tackle on Mario Mandzukic.

    Song was sent off and Cameroon's game plan fell apart, leaving the Vatreni a chance to finish the business with an ease.

    Croatia knocked Cameroon from the World Cup with a four-goal win to set up a last-match decider with Mexico.

Players Snub Media After Naked Snapshots

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    Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

    In the days between the Brazil and Cameroon matches, the Croatia squad took their fun in the swimming pool at their hotel.

    However, they were swimming completely nude and a Croatian tabloid newspaper published naked snapshots, including those of Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka.

    This angered the players and they decided to boycott Croatian media for the rest of the tournament, as BBC Sport reported.

Niko Kovac's Tactics vs. Mexico

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    Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

    Mexico were buzzing after claiming a surprise point from Brazil ahead of the decisive group match against Croatia, but the Vatreni were also in confident mood.

    However, Niko Kovac's team lost out in a 3-1 defeat and the head coach was criticised for playing Ivan Rakitic too deep, neutralising his attacking abilities and weakening his own midfield like that.

    Kovac changed things in the 60th minute with the introduction of Mateo Kovacic, but the team looked toothless for most of the 90 minutes.

Rebic’s Dismissal vs. Mexico

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    Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    It was already obvious that Croatia are packing their bags when Ante Rebic illegally tackled Carlos Pena to earn a deserved red card.

    Even though the 3-1 scoreline was too great to catch, Rebic's sending off was significant because it symbolised Croatian infirmity and frustration at the World Cup this year.

Pletikosa’s Terrible Tournament

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    Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press

    Croatia conceded six goals in three World Cup group matches, including Neymar’s penalty in the opening game.

    However, veteran goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa was not at his best in the tournament, and he proved to be slow, with poor reactions at decisive moments.

    Of course, it is hard to expect a goalkeeper to save a poor team, but Pletikosa's form was disappointing.